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Zeenet Ahmed, former student (Emily Belz for WORLD)

Saudi studies

Islam | Twenty-five years after a Christian school was denied expansion the D.C. suburbs, a Saudi Islamic school may expand on the same property

FAIRFAX, VA.-The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors usually plods through requests for extra left hand turning lanes or parking restrictions. But Monday police officers had to keep peace in the board's packed public hearing, and reinforcements circled outside the building on bicycles.

The board is moving to approve the expansion of the Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA), a 25-year-old school funded by the Saudi government and based in Fairfax, Va., the suburbs of Washington. The school's curriculum-also provided by the Saudi government-has been condemned by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which said the textbooks "do not conform to international human rights norms," including "overt exhortations to violence."

USCIRF said the school's textbooks show the Saudi government's version of Islam-vilifying other religions and permitting the murder of apostates or adulterers. Saudi Arabia is one of the eight countries on the State Department's list of the most egregious violators of religious freedom.

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"ISA is a private school of general education," said Lynn Strobel, who presented the school's case to the board. "It is no more nor no less than that."

Over 40 years ago, Fairfax Christian School stood on the same property, and the board of supervisors refused to allow the school to expand because of ecological concerns.

"What has changed in the previous quarter century that the ecological system is just fine?" asked Denise Lee of Woodbridge, Va. at the hearing. "There is a double standard taking place here."

Residents stood and condemned "domestic enemies" bred by the school, and rows of Muslim women in the traditional headscarf shook their heads and let out exasperated sighs. Some residents alleged that members of the Fairfax county government have been bought with Saudi money.

Jerod Powers of Arlington, Va., standing before the slightly amused but mostly bored supervisors, turned to the audience of over 500 behind him and boomed, "It is our duty to overthrow such a government." James Lafferty of the Virginia Anti-Shariah Task Force said the school is raising "the next generation of terrorists."

A Muslim woman, Dreiman Al-Bashrawi yelled back at the school's opponents, "They are the real threat!" drawing cheers.

The police officers shifted their feet nervously.

The school is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. While ISA graduates-some now graduates of Ivy League schools-testified about the school's moderate education, several of the school's graduates have gotten tangled with Homeland Security. A 2003 graduate of ISA, Raed Al-Saif, was stopped in the Tampa, Fla., airport in June when security found a butcher knife hidden in a seam of his bag. Another, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was convicted in 2005 of working with al-Qaeda and conspiring to assassinate former President George W. Bush. Ali was the valedictorian of the 1999 class.

The vast majority of the more than 50 speakers at the four-hour hearing opposed the school's expansion - some not because of the school's philosophy, but the traffic it generates. The board will deliberate and may decide whether to allow the school to expand by August.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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